Would you recognize a poor child when you saw one? Nine-year-old Carolyn Latimore and her sister Aalijah, eight, are beautiful little girls with big smiles on their faces. But Carolyn, Aalijah, and their older brother, Robert, 17, of Middletown, Ohio, fell into poverty when their parents divorced. They’ve lived in four places in the past four years including a chaotic housing project where their bikes and toys were stolen. Their mother, Christine Allen, works nights and goes to a junior college but escaping poverty is mighty hard in a recession.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass, on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, met Christine and her family earlier this year. Around three-quarters of poor children have a working parent. Christine began her adult life at a disadvantage: no high school diploma. She got married and worked. For 10 years, she was a nursing assistant, earning $10 to $15 an hour. “I was doing personal care for the elderly and I worked in a lot of Alzheimer’s units,” she said. Her husband was “making pretty good money” with overtime as a cook in a Bob Evans restaurant. “We had a little house. We didn’t have to worry about bills being paid and food in the refrigerator.” But things changed after their divorce.
Christine’s experiences over the past four years are typical of some of the realities of the working poor. One is the nature of the work itself -- frequently physically demanding, sometimes unpleasant, often not fulfilling, and always poorly paid. Bathing and changing elderly people day after day, year after year, she said, “takes its toll -- but after that job, she found herself stuck in a series of other jobs that paid even less: at a gas station, bowling alley, fast food restaurant. It took her a month, she said, to save $100 for the deposit on an apartment in a housing project and two more years to get out of subsidized housing and into her current house -- a well-kept place in a somewhat rundown neighborhood. At one low point she slipped on ice, broke her wrist, and lost her job at a nursing home. As a consequence she lost the car she was still paying on. When her wrist healed she rode a bicycle uphill across town to a part-time job at a Burger King. Christine decided at that point she had to go back to school in hopes of doing better for her children.
Christine completed her GED and got a Pell Grant and student loan to study administrative medical assisting at the local junior college. Through a temporary agency she got a job at a nearby factory where she earns $8.15 an hour. Although her hours have been irregular, they made it possible for her to go to classes in the morning. But now the irregular job she can’t afford to give up is getting in the way of the education which could lead to a better one: she’s down to her last semester of classes but the courses she needs run until five o’clock and she starts work at 2:30. She said the school told her she could do the courses online “but I don’t have a computer, and I can’t afford the Internet. That’s another bill!”
On the morning Julia Cass met them, the girls were up at 7:30 a.m., getting dressed and collecting their school supplies. Their brother had already left. None of them ate breakfast. “There’s no milk in the refrigerator right now,” Christine said. “It’s horrible to say that. No milk for cereal. But they get breakfast and lunch at school so I don’t have to worry about them being hungry.” “Sometimes we have granola bars, and every day we have chocolate milk and orange juice,” Aalijah said. “Sometimes we don’t get orange juice; we get peaches. And sometimes we get those little boxes of cereal.”
They aren’t the only family struggling in Middletown, which has steadily lost factories and population. Through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, Family Services of Middletown distributed 26,500 lunches in parks this summer so Middletown children wouldn’t go hungry while school was out. Millions of children are not so lucky in the summer. While almost 32 million children have lunch provided to them during the school year, only 2.3 million children benefit from summer feeding programs. Federal summer feeding programs have been plagued by state bureaucracy and need to be simplified right now. Not only can child hunger during long summer months be staunched, high quality summer learning programs can staunch summer learning loss which widens the achievement gap between poor and nonpoor children. Our nation needs to attend to the summer feeding needs of children because hunger does not stop when school is out. And summer feeding programs can create jobs for cooks and bus drivers and others.
“One of my main goals is to show my kids that you can get out there and make it,” Christine said. “Without an education, you can get nothing. I tell my kids that every day. I want them to be better than Mom.” But for now, Christine and her family remain among the nation’s working poor. As her children know, school breakfast and lunch programs work. Summer feeding programs work. We have good safety net programs that work when people need them, and we have to make sure every child who could benefit from these programs gets them as hardworking parents like Christine continue struggling to get back on their feet during the slow recovery. Help for poor parents and children should be protected before tax breaks for wealthy corporations and millionaires.
Read more about the new faces of poverty through the “Children of Hard Times” series by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass.